Most spiritual leaders can tell engaging life stories, crediting a series of pivotal experiences with shaping their lives’ work and influencing who they have become.
Not so for Byron Katie, the subject of this issue’s “Listening in With …” She does indeed have a remarkable story, don’t get me wrong. But rather than reaching a higher level of consciousness by devoting herself to serious spiritual study and spiritual practice, all Katie did was wake up—both literally and metaphorically.
Byron Kathleen Reid (now Mitchell) was born in Texas and raised in a small town in the Mojave Desert, 100 miles northeast of Los Angeles. In 1960, she left for college but dropped out during her first year to marry her high-school sweetheart. They had three children before divorcing in 1976, long after Katie began slipping into a debilitating depression.
Katie remarried in 1979 but continued to deteriorate. She became obsessed with suicide and was prone to rages. She overate compulsively and was addicted to codeine, alcohol, and cigarettes. An agoraphobic, she didn’t leave her bedroom for two years (and didn’t bathe for weeks at a time). Katie was so riddled with paranoia she sometimes kept a loaded gun under the bed.
Desperate for help, she called her health insurance company and was referred to a women’s residential treatment center run like a halfway house in Los Angeles. The other residents were so afraid of Katie’s wild mood swings that she had to sleep in the attic.
Less than two weeks after her arrival, she woke up one morning as a blank slate, as if seeing herself and the world for the first time. Katie felt totally free, exuding joy. She had no ego, no memories, and no knowledge of social norms (such as one shouldn’t go out in public wearing pajamas). The old Katie evaporated overnight, a totally new person appearing in her place. No drugs—therapeutic or recreational—or special therapies had been involved.
When she returned home, she didn’t recognize her husband or her kids at first. She soon began meditating for hours a day. She quit smoking, lost 75 pounds, and became vegan for a time. While never touting a religion or any type of doctrine, she began sharing her epiphany: Our minds project the world we see, and we suffer only when we believe our painful thoughts, which are illusion. She had woken up understanding a method of self-inquiry based on asking four questions (which she calls The Work). Reality, she teaches, is far kinder than the stories we tell ourselves, and freedom and joy are ours for the claiming.
Katie now has an international following and has helped millions at her public events and workshops as well as in prisons, hospitals, churches, corporations, universities, and schools. Clearly, The Work works.
Katy Koontz, Editor